Bolivia’s Morales Gets Half a Victory

LA PAZ – Bolivia’s leftist government scored a victory in elections for a Constituent Assembly, but failed to win two-thirds of the seats, so it will have to negotiate the terms of the new constitution with its opponents. Four departments (provinces) also made clear their desire for autonomy.

Surveys for a media network by the polling firm Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado Bolivia, predicted that the governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) had won 134 out of the 255 Assembly seats up for election on Sunday.

The administration of indigenous President Evo Morales and its political allies fell far short of the 170 assembly members needed to push through fundamental transformations in the system of government, change the market-oriented economic model, and introduce self-determination for indigenous peoples.

Other political forces, such as the Free Bolivia Movement (MBL), put their weight behind the MAS candidates and added to the number elected, as the president himself admitted.

In any case, the outcome was a historic result for Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, who are struggling to defend their lands and natural resources for the good of the country, Morales said after the election. Three million voters flocked to the polls to elect the Constituent Assembly and to vote Yes or No on a proposal for departmental autonomy.

The president also said that national unity had been preserved by the overall victory of the No votes with respect to departmental autonomy, which amounted to 56.2 percent of the total, although in four of the country’s nine departments the majority voted Yes for the system of autonomy, which they can embark on after the new constitution is approved in 2007.

Residents of the most prosperous department, Santa Cruz, in the east of Bolivia, celebrated the Yes to autonomy victory, supported by 71.6 percent, on Sunday night in the streets and plazas. Majorities for autonomy were also obtained in the northern departments of Beni, with 73.4 percent, and Pando, 52.9 percent, and in Tarija in the south, with 65.4 percent.

Morales told a press conference that his government will respect the decision of those departments that voted Yes, and it is up to the Constituent Assembly to determine the conditions of departmental autonomy, dissipating doubts arising from indications to the contrary in the days running up to the elections.

The proposal on autonomy put to the vote in Bolivia on July 2 said “the Constituent Assembly will examine the conditions, the modality, the transfer of responsibility, the transfer of funds and the means of governance, only for those departments that voted Yes. A law and a text in the constitution will be approved.”

However, in spite of these express words and the preliminary political agreements that were reached, the party of government brought another interpretation to bear, according to which an overall national No vote would preclude granting autonomy to the four departments where a majority voted Yes.

“The hegemonic Bolivia ruled by centralizing parties is at an end. This is proof of the spirit of a new, autonomous and decentralized country,” said the president of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, Germán Antelo.

On the opposite side, in the west and center of Bolivia the majority of people supported Morales’ position “against the power groups and their attempts to divide the country.” In La Paz 71.5 percent voted No to autonomy, in Oruro 73.9 percent, in Cochabamba 61.6 percent, in Potosí 70.2 percent, and in Chuquisaca 63 percent voted No.

Constitutional lawyer José Luis Gutiérrez Sardán believed that people’s participation in these elections can be interpreted as a search for transformation by democratic means.

In the last three years, this Andean country where 67.3 percent of the population of 9.2 million live in poverty, has experienced its worst ever political turbulence as a result of the resurgence of social movements in defense of oil, water and other natural resources. Three democratically elected presidents fell from office in that period.

“The social exclusion of the past is drawing to a close, and there is room now for social forces to complement one another, within the framework of a participative democracy,” Gutiérrez Sardán told IPS.

The 134 MAS members of the Constituent Assembly will not be all-powerful, and will be acting along with other, smaller political forces. This will prevent them from uncontrolled action and, in contrast, presages negotiations with other civil society organizations, and constant mobilization of the people in a scenario of intense activity for change, he explained.

Meanwhile, Alexis Pérez, a historian and university lecturer, said in an IPS interview that the “totalitarian tendencies of the governing party will find an equilibrium with delegates of other ideological persuasions. The stripping of powers from local authorities will be prevented, and the administration will have to look for solutions that work for the country as a whole.”

Pérez believes that the debate about autonomy will focus on the conditions attached to the transfer of executive powers from the central government to the departments that voted Yes. He also thinks that the government must establish the basis for free circulation of people, capital, goods, and the means of production.

The national government must impose these conditions on behalf of the country, but basically it must also strengthen itself economically in order to guarantee the present distribution of funds to the 328 municipal governments, and later on to the autonomous departments, he added.

According to Pérez, the country is very poor and it is now polarized, after Sunday’s vote, as a result of the alliance of the middle classes with the oligarchy, which promoted wider decentralization.

In the opinion of Franklin Pareja, political science coordinator at the state Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, the outcome of the referendum on self-determination refuted the administration’s claim that the movement for autonomy consisted only of the elites and the oligarchy.

“It’s not just small power groups, it’s a large part of the population,” Pareja told IPS.

The readjustment of the balance of power following the Yes victory in four departments will determine the forging of agreements by consensus, and an evenhanded exercise of government power, he commented.

As a criticism, he said that polarizing, ideologically divisive rhetoric would pose a challenge to the Constituent Assembly’s task of operating democratically.

Estimates by the news media suggest that, in addition to the 134 MAS delegates, the Social Democratic Power (Podemos) led by former president Jorge Quiroga Ramírez (01-2002) will have 64 delegates, reflecting increased support, leaving in third place the National Unity party of business leader Samuel Doria Medina, with 10 seats, followed by other, smaller parties.